Disaster literature has experienced a rapid evolution from hackneyed tales of death and destruction wrapped in florid story lines into a diverse scholarly palette redolent with social, political, economic, and cultural meaning. Disasters offer great explanatory power and a useful lens to examine American culture. The great Mississippi flood of 1927 was one of the most destructive river floods in U.S. history and has been extensively studied in popular and scholarly texts. In The Flood Year 1927, Susan Scott Parrish, a professor of English and literature at the University of Michigan, eschews a pat retelling of the 1927 flood in favor of a multidisciplinary approach examining “how this disaster took on form and meaning … across multiple media platforms” (p. 3). The shape and style this disaster took, according to Parrish, were unique to the modern age and mediated in the pages of local and national press, the broadcasts of radio programs, vaudevillian performances, literature, blues lyrics, and political cartoons. The Flood Year 1927 comprises two main sections, a brief introduction, and a conclusion. The introduction and Chapter 1 lay out the social and environmental causes and consequences of the disaster—race, the Civil War, agricultural practices, commerce, and environmental (mis)management. Parrish's treatment of race, in particular from the Civil War through the 1927 flood, spans diverse regions and cultural domains, providing an elegant synthesis of the black-white divide manifest in disaster. The next four chapters examine the cultural and literary landscape of the flood through radio and print media, the relief apparatus, the singer Bessie Smith's oeuvre, and vaudeville. The final chapters depart from the foregoing sociocultural analysis, delving deep into literary criticism of the works of William Faulkner and Richard Wright. Parrish could be criticized for replacing the experience and reality of the flood with an analysis reconciled solely through text and therefore removed from the event. But it is precisely in and through the visceral works of Faulkner, Wright, and Zora Neale Hurston, the intimate lyrics of Bessie Smith, and the gut punch of vaudevillian figures such as Will Rogers and Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles that the essence of this most modern disaster took shape. Parrish's endnotes run over seventy pages and contain a treasure trove of below-the-line commentary, source work, and gifted insights. Researchers would be well served to mine these valuable pages. While novices might be put off by some of the asides, the main thrust of The Flood Year 1927 is quite accessible. In her conclusion, Parrish briefly traces the arc of modern disaster from the 1927 flood to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The common themes are strikingly familiar and reveal critical lessons of disaster at work in modern relief regimes, environmental policies, and race. This is what gives The Flood Year 1927 its potency and makes it an indispensable contribution to disaster scholarship and our understanding of the 1927 flood. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Organization of American Historians. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Journal of American History – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 1, 2018
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